The Easy Way Out
~ The Friendship Series ~
“I, Harmony, take you, Aaron, to have and to hold from this day forward until death do us part, and even for the eternity after that, you have my love.”
Drew Easton stood on the top step of the church, wishing that breathing didn’t hurt quite so badly.
“May I have the rings, please?” the minister asked, and Drew dug into his pocket for the ring that at one time he’d thought he would be placing on Harmony Jordan’s finger.
After locating it, he and Harmony’s sister, Charity, stepped forward, holding the rings out for the blessing. Drew never heard the minister’s words, and there wasn’t a safe place to put his gaze. Looking at Harmony in her veil and satin tore his heart out. Looking at Aaron, with that smile that hadn’t left his face for months, brought a burning jealousy to Drew’s chest that he hated himself for. And then there was Charity.
The emerald green of her satin dress rested just below her cream-white shoulders, and with her hair pulled up in ringlets around her face, she looked far too much like Harmony had the first time Drew had met her—no, not even Charity was safe.
Suddenly he became aware of the silence that had invaded the space around him, and he looked up, wondering what he had missed. The minister smiled at him kindly, and then Drew’s gaze fell to the minister’s out-stretched hand. Quickly he dropped the ring into it and stepped back.
If he could just get through the next couple of hours in one piece, he could escape to his own apartment where his heart could ache in peace. He looked past Aaron at Harmony, and the look in her eyes as she gazed at her new husband brought tears to his own. He was happy for them. He truly and honestly was. They were right together. But his heart couldn’t help but say that if he hadn’t been dumb enough to let her go in the first place, he would be the one standing in front of her—tying himself to his best friend forever.
“…it is my honor and my privilege to present to you for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Foster. Aaron, you may kiss your bride.”
Drew’s gaze traveled not to the newlyweds but across the heads of the congregation as the snapping of his heart cracked in his ears. Somewhere far away from him, he heard the organ swell to life, and he raked in a torturous breath. Just get down the aisle and get some fresh air.
Trying not to think too much, he looked across the step at Charity. For one second their gazes met, and when she smiled at him, he saw the relief that was overflowing through her eyes as well. Gallantly, he reached across the step and took her hand as they turned toward the back.
Like a dove alighting on its perch, she accepted his offered hand, and they stepped down the stairs together. Once in the aisle, he offered her his arm, she accepted it, and together they made their way out of the church.
They were the first ones to make it to the bride and groom, and Drew plastered a smile on his face that he sincerely hoped looked happy. Today was their day, and he wasn’t going to do anything to ruin it.
He watched as Aaron enveloped Charity into the lapel of his tuxedo jacket.
“Welcome to the family,” Charity said just loud enough for Drew to hear.
“Thanks,” Aaron said, and then Charity stepped past him to greet her sister.
“Congratulations, partner.” Drew extended his hand to Aaron.
“Drew. Thanks so much for everything,” Aaron said, and then for one moment the handshake became a hug. “I’ll never be able to repay you, man.”
Drew stepped back and looked at his friend. “Just take care of her—that’ll be payment enough.”
Aaron nodded, and Drew turned his attention to Harmony, whose smile barely masked the tears behind it.
“Drew,” she said, extending her arms to him.
He pulled her into a hug, and they stood like that for several heartbeats. When he finally pulled away, he smiled as he nodded at Aaron. “You take care of this one.”
“I will,” she said, and with one more, quick hug, he stepped away from her.
His heart could take no more, so quickly he walked out of the church into the cool October breeze. However, his brain had been so focused on the happy couple that he hadn’t bothered to keep up with where Charity had gone. As he rounded the corner, he met up with her leaning against the building.
“Oh.” He stopped, nearly tripping with the suddenness of it. “Sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
She smiled at him with sarcasm dripping from the look. “Join the crowd.”
“Huh?” His forehead furrowed in concern.
Quickly she shook her head. “Never mind.”
He nodded, thankful she wouldn’t pummel him for his own feelings. “Well, I’m glad that’s over.”
“Yeah, me, too.” Charity pulled a cigarette out of the small handbag at her wrist and put it to her lips. In two seconds she was puffing away. “Seems a little silly to waste all that money and time just so they can set themselves up for heartache and divorce later.”
Drew pulled back in surprise. “That’s pretty cynical. Don’t you think?” Drew asked, having never seen this side of Charity in all the time they had worked on her parents’ yard together.
She shrugged and took another long drag on the cigarette as the brunette ringlets danced around her head. “Yeah? Well, sue me.”
“Charity.” Her younger brother, Hart, emerged from the church in full tuxedo. “You know what Mom said about smoking today.”
In annoyance, she yanked the cigarette out of her mouth and blew the smoke into the air defiantly. “Quit being my babysitter, Hart.”
“Well, somebody needs to,” he said harshly.
She scowled. “I’m old enough to take care of myself.”
“Yeah? Then may I suggest you start acting like it.” Hart turned to Drew and extended his hand and a smile. “Hey, Drew. How’s business?”
“Pretty good. We’re shifting into fall/winter mode. Aaron’s got two hotels and several Christmas light orders ready to go. But we’ve been working our silly heads off trying to keep all those lawns mowed without you around. I sure hope school is worth leaving us high and dry.”
“It’s okay,” Hart said with a nod. “Sixteen hours. It’s keeping me busy.”
“And out of trouble?” Drew asked.
“Now that would take more than a few classes,” Hart said with a grin.
“Hart, Charity, Drew,” Mrs. Jordan called from the church doors. “Pictures.”
“Ugh.” Charity coughed. “Don’t they have enough pictures already?”
“Cheer up, Char.” Trying to act like this wasn’t about to kill him as well, Drew laced his arm through hers. “One more round, and we’re off the hook.”
She smirked at him and then dropped her cigarette to the concrete and snuffed it out with the emerald green toe of her shoe. “I can’t wait.”
“Drew,” Mr. Jordan said as he leaned back in his chair at the reception, “you’re on.”
With a slow exhale, Drew closed his eyes, gathering his courage. Pushing his chair backward with a screech, he stood, picked up his glass, and tapped on it with his fork.
“Uh-hmm!” He cleared his throat as gazes throughout the room turned to him. “May I have your attention, please?” The dull roar faded to silence, and extreme self-consciousness descended on him. Somehow when Aaron had asked him to be best man, this moment had never entered his mind, and now inexplicably here he was. “I’d like to say a few words about two of the best people I know.
“First, Aaron, you’re my best friend and partner. Sometimes we make decisions in an instant that change the course of our lives forever. Aaron made just such a decision when he put his future on the line to win Harmony’s heart. I just want to tell you to never forget what you were willing to sacrifice for her.”
Drew raised his glass to Aaron who smiled, and then he shifted his focus to Harmony.
“And, Harmony.” Drew exhaled slowly, drawing his bottom lip under his top for a moment, trying to figure out how he was ever going to say any more. He dropped his gaze and then lifted it, knowing she deserved that much. “Don’t ever settle for good just because you think you can’t have great. Okay? Remember this moment and know that great is always within your reach.”
He raised his glass to Harmony, whose smile was laced with tears.
“I wish you both love and peace forever. To Aaron and Harmony.”
“Aaron and Harmony!” echoed throughout the room as Drew took a small drink from his glass before sitting back down.
Charity leaned into him even as she picked up her knife and fork again. “That was nice.”
“Thanks,” Drew said as the tension of the day began to curl around him. “I thought I was a goner there for half-a-second.”
“You did good.”
Careful to keep his gaze on his meat, Drew ducked and forced the air into his lungs. It’s almost over. Just keep your eyes on the end, and you can get through this.
From the second she had awakened late at her parents’ house, the day had been one long Excedrin headache for Charity. She felt like the ugly stepsister playing nursemaid to Cinderella. Charity, do this. Hurry up, Charity, we’re going to be late to the salon. Just let her do your hair, Charity. Stop complaining. Come on, we don’t have all day. You should’ve done that last night. And they were all in on it, too—even Hart who usually took her side in the confrontations with her family.
No, today was Harmony’s day, and basically that meant that Charity was only there to get yelled at, stepped over, and complained about. When Harmony and Aaron made their way over to the three-tiered cake looking as sugary sweet as the cake itself, Charity could take no more. Without bothering to tell anyone where she was going, she pushed out of the hall and headed in the first direction her feet carried her.
October meant the skies darkened much earlier so that although it was only 8:30, Atlanta was already dark save for the amber streetlights blanketing the parking lot. Where she was going didn’t matter much. She could walk to Jamaica, and as long as nothing went wrong, no one would notice she was gone.
The worst part was that if it was just this one day, she could’ve handled that, but Harmony had always been first in their hearts, and Charity was sure she always would be. Harmony was the child who could do no wrong. She caused no trouble in high school, and once she had graduated, she had left home, gone to school, got a job, and found a man—all without so much as lifting her little finger.
Charity had heard the phrase, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” so many times it should’ve been permanently engraved on her forehead by now. But no matter what she did, she could never be Harmony. No. Charity was the family screw-up. It was well-documented in all her school records.
Fights, cheating, lying, almost being expelled on two separate occasions, and finally dropping out when it all got too hard—that was Charity. To begin with she had tried to be like Harmony, then when it became clear that nothing she ever did would ever be good enough to justify her place in the family, she had given up even trying.
The October air was cool against her bare shoulders, but even as she looked down at her dress, a picture of Harmony in full wedding attire flashed through her mind and what she really wanted to do was rip the dress right off her body and throw it in the garbage.
“Argh!” In frustration she kicked a rock, sending it skittering across the parking lot. It was then that she saw the figure emerge from the shadows of the cars, and for one moment, fear said she should run. However, just before that message reached her feet, she realized who it was. Drew. And in a rush the annoyance with the whole lousy day returned. “What are you doing out here?”
He smiled at her sadly and slowly lifted the bottle in his hand into the light. “I’m not real big on champagne.”
Charity laughed the first real laugh she had all day. “You want some company?”
Drew shrugged and leaned back against the car before taking another drink. She walked up and leaned onto the car beside him.
“You want some?” He offered her the bottle, and she took it and tipped it up.
“Hmmm.” She closed her eyes as all the friction from the day slid away from her. “So, what are you doing out here?”
He shrugged. “I can only take being on my best behavior so long, and then I start to spontaneously-combust.”
“I hear you there. If I have to take one more picture, I might just break that guy’s camera.”
“Yeah, and this monkey-suit is about as comfortable as a grass sack.”
“Here.” She turned to him and loosened the bowtie at his neck. “No reason to be so formal out here.”
He smiled at her as she resumed her place against the car.
“Okay, so you know my story, what’s yours?” he asked off-handedly as he tipped the bottle up and took another drink.
Without asking, she reached for the bottle in his hand, tipped it up, and took a long swallow—enjoying how the liquid burned all the way down her throat and into her stomach.
“Perfection is highly overrated,” she finally said, dropping the bottle but not returning it to his hand. “Being reminded that I’m not tends to make me a little squirrelly.”
His forehead knotted. “Harmony?”
“My whole family.” She took another drink. “The fact that I’m the weak link isn’t lost on a single one of them.”
“The weak link?”
“Hey, Charity! You out here?” Hart called from the hall doors, and instantly she thrust the bottle back to Drew who quickly stowed it in his car. “Charity!”
“I’m coming!” she yelled back, waiting just long enough for Drew to find his way to her side.
“They’re throwing the bouquet.”
“Oh, great,” Charity said under her breath.
“Hang in there,” Drew said softly. “One more hour, and life will go on.”
Together they stepped onto the concrete steps of the hall.
“Lead me to the humiliation,” Charity said as though the guillotine was waiting on the other side of those doors. The hall was blindingly bright when they walked back in, and an invisible wall of heat wrapped around her.
“Charity, come on,” her mother called from the front, and wishing she could run without looking hopelessly dorky, Charity hurried to the small knot of women standing in the middle of the floor.
“Okay, I’m here,” she said, joining them.
Harmony looked over the small group and then turned around. “Here we go. One. Two. Three!” She flung the green and yellow bouquet over her head right in Charity’s direction; however, Charity side-stepped the press of women lunging for it, and in seconds it was in some other woman’s hands.
With a sigh of relief she shrugged at Harmony who shook her head and then laughed happily with the woman who had caught it.
“Okay, okay,” Mr. Jordan said, taking the reins as master of ceremonies. “We need Drew and Hart up here.”
Charity looked across the floor and immediately saw the pained expression cross Drew’s face. He glanced over at her as he strode to Mr. Jordan, and she made a small ‘your turn’ gesture at him. A smile crossed his face as he tore his gaze away from hers and walked up to Mr. Jordan.
“We’re going to need to use the two of you for a chair,” Mr. Jordan said. “Here kneel down.”
Carefully, the two of them knelt facing each other.
“Harmony,” her father said, offering her his hand, which she took with a smile. He seated her on the tops of the two men’s thighs.
Despite the fact that everyone else in the room was whooping and hollering, Charity could see that if he had half-a-chance Drew would’ve disappeared right into the floor. As Aaron slipped the garter off of Harmony’s leg, Charity watched Drew. It was obvious, to her anyway, that he was hating every single minute of this.
When the garter was free, Aaron stood and gave his hand to Harmony to help her up. Then stiffly the two groomsmen stood. Aaron laughingly shooed them into the pack of single men waiting for the garter toss. It was funny because as Charity watched him, she thought they must have been cut from exactly the same kind of cloth. He hung back, and when the garter flew in his direction, he deftly side-stepped it.
At the bottom of the pile, Hart came up with it, and proudly slipped it onto his forearm. She watched Aaron high-five Hart for a second, but her gaze followed Drew as he quietly disappeared into the crowd. Without more than a second’s worth of thought, she pushed her way in the direction he had gone.
After only a few moments of searching, she found him, pressed firmly against the wall, looking like he could use some more of that drink he’d left in the car.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, leaning in to him carefully. “You not interested in doing all this for real?”
“Well, I didn’t see you sacrificing your life for the bouquet,” he said, and the words had an edge to them.
She shrugged. “I figured I’d let someone who believes in marriage give her life for it.”
He tilted his head to the side. “You don’t believe in marriage?”
“Not for me.”
She considered the question and him for a second and then shrugged. “I’m not permanent enough for marriage.”
“Short attention span,” she said, using the exact term countless teachers had in her lifetime.
“Well, maybe you just haven’t found anything worth concentrating on.”
“How do you know that?”
“Trust me,” she said with a knowing nod. “It doesn’t.”
Movement from in front of them brought her attention back from the land of deep thought.
“Drew,” Aaron said, walking up with Harmony’s hand tucked firmly in his own. “You still going to take us to the car?”
“Oh, sure.” Drew straightened instantly. He took a step away from Charity and then stopped. “You mind if Charity comes along?”
Aaron shrugged. “The more the merrier.”
“We’ll go get the car,” Drew said, and Charity was thankful she wouldn’t have to parade around the hall behind the happy couple. Without being at all obvious, Drew reached into the folds of her dress and rescued her hand. “You ready?”
The heat from his hand pulsed up her arm so that it wouldn’t have mattered where he was taking her, she would’ve gone. Wordlessly she nodded, and they walked out to the parking lot.
“You going to be okay to drive?” she asked, not really knowing where the lines of friendship and loyalty crossed with the duties of responsibility.
“Yeah, I only had a little.”
She squinted at him carefully.
“I swear,” he said, holding both hands in the air, and one of hers accompanied his.
“But you would tell me, you know, if you didn’t think you could…”
“I would tell you,” he said, nodding seriously. He unlocked her door, and as she opened it, the bottle lying on her seat caught her attention. Without mention, she stowed it under the passenger’s seat.
He got in on his side and sat one moment before he reached up to put the keys in the ignition. She could see the tension creep back onto his face, and gently she reached across the seat and touched his arm. “One more hour.”
Gratefully he smiled at her. Neither one wanted to be here, but being here together somehow made that fact less soul-wrenching.
The headlights sliced through the amber light as he drove up to the sidewalk edge.
“Maybe we should let them drive,” he said, noticing the crowd beginning to push out of the doors.
“Okay.” Deftly she pushed out of her door, pulled the back seat forward and climbed in back, where he met her coming from the other side, and their shoulders collided.
“Ugh. Sorry,” he said.
“That’s okay,” she said, feeling instantly how incredibly small the backseat actually was. “Here they come.”
In a flurry of satin, petticoats, and rice, the newlyweds raced from the hall to the car door. Aaron helped Harmony in, slammed her door, and then ran around to the driver’s side even as the well-wishers continued to shower rice onto the car.
“You don’t want to drive?” Aaron asked, dusting the rice from his hair as he slammed the door.
“You can,” Drew said solidly. “I’m fine right here.” He leaned back, and the shoulder of his jacket brushed Charity’s shoulder. Furtively, he looked over at her, and then he reached down and took her hand.
It was like escaping into a dark corner right under the chaperone’s nose, and Charity smiled. Her attention caught on the movement of Harmony’s hand in the front as it reached across the seats and rested on Aaron’s arm.
“We made it,” she said softly, and Charity saw the smile cross Aaron’s face in the streak of the streetlight as he looked over at his bride.
The words held a happiness that Charity couldn’t remember ever feeling. Watching them was like seeing a testament to the fact that happiness was for everyone else other than her. She turned her gaze out the window, wishing she hadn’t agreed to come. At that moment Drew’s grip tightened on her hand, and she looked over at him and smiled sadly. The absolute knowledge that neither of them would ever be sitting in the front seat like Aaron and Harmony now were engulfed them both.
After many long minutes the car crossed into the parking lot and into a space. Aaron killed the engine, and the four of them extricated themselves from the midst of the car.
“Well,” Aaron said as he wrapped Harmony under his arm and extended his other hand to Drew, “thanks for everything, man.”
“No problem.” Drew shook his friend’s hand. “And don’t worry about work. I can handle it for a week.”
“I trust you,” Aaron said.
Drew leaned in and kissed Harmony’s cheek. “Be careful.”
“Take care,” Charity said, leaning in to give Harmony an awkward hug.
“I will,” Harmony said, returning the hug with only one arm.
“And you take care of her,” Charity said, sliding to the side to give Aaron a hug as well.
They all stood in a long, uneasy silence.
“Well, we’d better get back,” Drew finally said, and Charity nodded. “We’ll see you two next week.”
Aaron waved slightly as Drew climbed in one side and Charity crawled in the other. Drew started the car and threw his arm over the seat to back out. But Charity’s gaze was locked on the couple still standing under the carport. Waving and smiling, they looked like they should be on the top of a cake.
“They’re sickening,” she said under her breath.
“I know,” Drew said sadly. “Wouldn’t it be great to be as sickening as they are?”
Tears stung the backs of her eyes. It was like he was reading her thoughts as they streaked across the canvas of her mind, and that was even more annoying than the newlyweds.
When they arrived back at the hall, most of the cars were already gone, so Drew pulled up into one of the front parking spaces. Like emerging from a tomb, they climbed out.
“Hey, Char, where’d you go?” Hart asked in annoyance from behind a mountain of foil-wrapped boxes.
“We took them to their car,” Charity said, slamming her door in frustration. No matter what she did, it was always wrong.
“Well, Mom’s about to have a conniption if you don’t get your little self in there and help clean up.”
“So, what else is new?” she asked only loud enough for Drew who was right by her side to hear.
They walked to the door, and he pulled it open for her although she could’ve used the effort to drain the excess of angry energy flowing through her.
“It’s about time you get here,” her mother greeted her, holding out a folded tablecloth, the guestbook, and a bridal photo of Harmony. “Take these to the car, and then come help me with the rest of this cake.”
Charity accepted the stack placed into her hands, and she turned to Drew and smiled. The torture continued.
“So, do you need a ride home?” Drew asked Charity an hour later when everything had been stowed in the cars.
“I don’t know.” She glanced over her shoulder hesitantly. “I’m just going to Mom’s.”
“Well, I just happen to know where that is.”
She smiled as her mother walked out of the kitchen. “Come on, Charity, we need to get this meat home before it spoils.”
“Drew said he could give me a ride,” Charity said softly.
“Oh, don’t be silly. That’s clear across town. He doesn’t have time to be taxiing you around.”
She hated being treated like she was ten. She hated it. “But he offered.”
“Can you hit that light switch?” her mother asked as though Charity hadn’t said anything.
With a sigh of resignation, Charity pushed her feet across the floor and hit the switch, plunging the room into darkness. Slowly she crossed back to the door where Drew still stood.
“I guess I’d better go home with them,” she said reluctantly.
He nodded, his eyes full of sadness and acceptance. “That’s okay. I understand.”
But she doubted the truth of that statement. And what she knew he did understand, she wished he didn’t.
“Can I call you sometime?” he asked softly as they stepped into the night air.
She shrugged. “It’s a free country.”
“Charity, come on,” Hart called from the car.
Quickly she closed the door and checked the lock. Then as she turned to the car, Drew caught her hand for one more brief second. “Thanks for tonight. It was nice to have a friend.”
Her smile cracked right through the annoyance with her family. “Yeah, it was.”